Geopolitics & Security

In Their Own Words: Civil Society’s Fight to Deny Taliban Legitimacy in Afghanistan

Commentary22nd September 2022

The strength and determination of the people of Afghanistan cannot be overstated. The Taliban’s illegitimate and violent assumption of power has created a hostile environment for women and girls, human-rights activists, journalists and those who dare to advocate for freedom and dignity. In an attempt to suppress civil society and dissent among the population, the Taliban has committed repeated human-rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture and savage beatings. Yet in the face of this upheaval, the people of Afghanistan have relentlessly challenged the Taliban’s totalitarian regime. The group’s attempts to intimidate and eliminate political opponents as well as to silence Afghanistan’s diverse civil society have, by and large, failed. Prior to the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the emergence of a vibrant, diverse and active civil society had become a symbol of the country’s achievements over the past 20 years. During the past year of Taliban rule, however, much of that progress has been reversed, with people now living in constant fear or being forced to escape. Despite these odds, Afghanistan’s active civil society has managed to oppose the Taliban’s harsh policies and expose the regime’s crimes to the international community.

Engagement from the international community has commenced in return, with the UK government now promising more contact and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken establishing a forum to directly connect Afghanistan’s civil society – especially women – to policymakers in the United States. Informed and active civil-society engagement is now an absolute necessity for the international community as it looks to define its policy on Afghanistan. Government-endorsed initiatives, such as those announced by the United Kingdom and the United States this year, are a step in the right direction. But there is still a platform needed for consultation with and amplification of this truly diverse set of voices – one that will help to secure more impactful engagement about the country’s future and, importantly, how to correct the failings of the past.

Introducing a New Video Collection

As part of the Tony Blair Institute’s work on Afghanistan, we have invited members of civil society living inside and outside Afghanistan to participate in a video collection that documents their experiences of the Taliban takeover, their lives under the totalitarian regime and their expectations of an alternative future. We have been humbled by the submissions. In this first presentation, 13 distinguished representatives of the country’s diverse civil society – including Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks as well as Ismailis, Shias and Sunnis – come together to highlight the fundamental issues they are facing today.  

The collection includes a former government official who explains that under Taliban control, the country’s “situation deteriorated, and the vast majority of residents fled”. While participating in anti-Taliban demonstrations, he “encountered brutality from the Taliban who arrested, beat and prosecuted the protesters”. Hoda Khamosh, a prominent women’s rights activist, explains how she “felt betrayed” after the Taliban announced a male-only cabinet and confirms that “the Taliban have been removing women from society since their arrival” and that the country has “reverted [back] 20 years to the previous Taliban regime”. In response, she has “organised protest movements to draw the world’s attention to the presence of women in society”. Dr Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and the all-girls’ orchestra Zohra, fled the country during the previous Taliban regime in the 1990s because music was prohibited. Once more, he has been forced to leave his country to escape the more recent Taliban takeover but this time he bravely rescued 273 members of his music school, re-establishing it in Portugal. It is equally important to highlight the anonymous videos in this collection. We have purposefully concealed the contributors’ identities to ensure their or their families lives are not placed in peril.  

Although the concept of “civil society” is fluid, we use the term here to represent members of human-rights organisations, national and international non-governmental organisations, media outlets, think tanks and universities as well as artists, journalists, writers and intellectuals. Despite their different ethnic, religious and linguistic affiliations, they all describe how their loss of freedom has affected them one year on from the takeover. Their stories reveal their shared heartbreak and betrayal, and their common sense of purpose in wishing to reclaim their country’s future.

Figure 1

How Has Afghanistan Changed Under Taliban Rule?

A Crucial Consensus Emerges

Across the submissions, there is a crucial consensus that should inform any future international policy on Afghanistan: that the Taliban is an illegitimate usurping force; that efforts have not stopped or faded to resist the Taliban or to define alternatives to the regime, despite the flawed Doha agreement of 2020; and that the future of Afghanistan depends on the preservation of democratic values and the protection of fundamental human rights. Each of the voices we feature demonstrate that members of Afghanistan’s civil society – who continue to challenge the Taliban in pursuit of a dignified, free, democratic and diverse country – deserve and urgently require meaningful and greater engagement with Western politicians and policymakers.

Estimates show that 70 per cent of the country’s population are under the age of 30. This means these generations have come of age during two decades of democratic process, increased freedoms, equality of education between men and women and a burgeoning civil society. For Afghanistan’s millennial generation, the values that many may describe as “Western” are in fact their own. It is therefore crucial that Western governments engage with Afghanistan’s civil society, giving a platform to their voices and supporting their efforts towards modernisation.

Representing the Mosaic of Communities

Ensuring the representation of all communities is key to any meaningful civil-society dialogue. To fully capture Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic, mosaic-like character, the Tony Blair Institute’s efforts to engage have incorporated as many cross-sections of the population as possible. By convening members from multiple ethnic and religious communities, we have sought to provide a complete representation of Afghanistan’s civil society. This is essential because it is only possible for Western policymakers to truly understand Afghanistan if they are willing to take the time to understand its complex and diverse ethnic make-up. Despite 20 years of shoulder-to-shoulder intervention in the country, there is still much to be learned by the West about the intricate societal dynamics of Afghanistan. This is why meaningful exchange and dialogue today will require much sensitivity about past misrepresentations and oversimplifications of the ethnic, tribal and religious differences in the country. After all, it is these issues that remain at the heart of unlocking Afghanistan’s path to peace.

Realities on the Ground

Many in the West continue to be misled by Taliban propaganda, which exploits the rural-urban divide by claiming that dissenters who call for modernisation are based solely in cities and so cannot represent Afghanistan’s rural majorities. However, before the Taliban takeover, surveys revealed that Taliban sympathisers comprise only 10 per cent of the entire population. Despite common misperceptions – or indeed, wishful thinking – about a “reformed Taliban 2.0”, the Islamist group has violently imposed its oppressive ethnoreligious ideology upon the whole of Afghanistan – again.

Using force to dominate the population and enforce its totalitarian worldview, the Taliban has been suppressing peaceful and armed opposition to its rule instead of negotiating with ethnic, religious and political groups to reach a compromise on the country’s future. And despite the promise of “amnesty”, former government officials, members of the national defence and security services, and police personnel have been executed in significant numbers. The use of force at demonstrations has caused injuries and death among non-violent protestors. Women have been threatened, harassed and assaulted, including journalists, and advocates for human and women’s rights. Many people have fled the country or gone into hiding. With the regime continuing to accept nothing less than blind allegiance to the Taliban’s so-called spiritual leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, there has been no room for discussion about the future of Afghanistan’s political and civic life. In the northern provinces where armed resistance occurs, notably Badakhshan, Baghlan, Panjshir and Takhar, ordinary people have been harassed, evicted, abducted and even killed by the Taliban. The Taliban’s reliance on oppression is a result of both its precarious claims to legitimacy, and its alien and extremist interpretation of Islam.

What Inclusion Means

The Taliban’s crisis of legitimacy and Afghanistan’s ongoing instability stem from the fundamental failures of consecutive peace talks to engage with Afghanistan’s civil society. The main lesson from the past 20 years is clear: that peace in Afghanistan is unachievable without an inclusive approach. The exclusion of Afghanistan’s civil society at the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in 2001 contributed to the failure of multiple peace processes thereafter – including the Doha talks that began in 2018. The former government of Afghanistan, political factions and civil society were all excluded from those latter discussions. For the Doha agreement to have worked, immense diplomacy and strategic foresight to reconcile not only the conflicting interests of religious and ethnic communities within Afghanistan, but also the competing interests of regional powers, would have been required. It has been proven time and time again over the years that both these factors are intertwined and often mutually reinforcing.

While the US administration’s decision to withdraw was driven by the desire to end the “forever wars”, the Taliban and its Pakistani allies believed the Doha agreement provided them with an advantage in the retaking of Afghanistan. Had the peace talks been intended to secure genuine and lasting peace, they would not only have focused on an agreement between the United States and the Taliban but also involved US mediation between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan to honour the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is”. Instead, the talks centred on the sole issue of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, made in exchange for vague assurances that the Taliban would prevent terrorist organisations, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, from operating in Afghanistan and that it would promise to “engage honestly” with the government. After the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan, it proclaimed its triumph as total. Today the group continues to deny the existence of alternative and armed resistance groups, such as the National Resistance Front and Afghanistan’s Freedom Front, as well as peaceful civil-society movements in Afghanistan and abroad. The recent targeting of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul has also made it plain that Afghanistan is once again harbouring terrorist organisations including al-Qaeda – and that the Taliban cannot be relied upon as a Western ally in counter-terrorism efforts.

The Building Blocks of a Peace Initiative That Works

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan will slide further into deep fragmentation and internal warfare, with regional and even international ramifications. For this reason, any peace initiatives established by Western governments must work with all national and regional stakeholders, including Afghanistan’s civil society, to put an end to the country’s conflict and instability. Engaging civil society is the first step in the right direction. The next is to engage religious and ethnic leaders that stand against the Taliban. In combination, these factors will make a national peace dialogue possible although it will have to result in a comprehensive political settlement. This means not only addressing the underlying internal issues between different communities – including the establishment of a decentralised political system that accommodates and represents all strata of society – but also the security concerns that many neighbouring countries may have.

For a national peace dialogue to become the cornerstone of Western foreign policy in Afghanistan, there are three major policy hurdles to overcome:

  • Now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, it does not feel obliged to comply with Western peace initiatives and instead wants to eliminate resistance groups rather than work towards compromise and coexistence.

  • The international community continues its engagement with the Taliban instead of members of civil society and resistance groups. This serves to embolden the Taliban.

  • There is no evidence from the Taliban’s track record that it desires or responds to peace efforts positively.

While these pose real challenges for governments seeking a genuine political settlement for Afghanistan, what is clear is that generations of people in Afghanistan are deeply committed to the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy. Indeed, they are risking their own lives every day to protect the way of life they knew before the events of August 2021. Even after a year of abandonment.

The people’s resistance movement has only just begun.

This project would not have been possible without the help of Mosaic Afghanistan. We are grateful to its team for the support in expanding the Tony Blair Institute’s network and in translating the contributions.  

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